He came to the U.S. with $300 in his pocket and a partial scholarship to the University of Oregon. Now, after 48 years in Eugene and a string of restaurants to his name, he has finally started a place that serves the food of his home country, Lebanon.
Walid “Willie” Saleeby opened Willie’s Lebanese and Northwest Cuisine in 2013 in Springfield, dishing up Lebanese classics like shish tawook (chicken kebab) and kafta (meatball).
“This is all the way my mother and grandmother used to do it,” Saleeby says, then jerks a thumb over his shoulder towards the kitchen. “There’s no recipe back there for that.”
“People get shown how to do it,” adds restaurant manager Moses Kimball. “That’s what makes the difference. Literally, Lebanese food is love, it really is.”
The mazza plate for two, including baba ghanoush hummus and falafel, provides a great overview of what Lebanese food has to offer. Fresh focaccia bread tops it all off. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible and the menu remains small to ensure everything stays fresh.
Saleeby decided to keep some items from his previous restaurant, Willie’s on Seventh Avenue, to maintain a bit of continuity. “Now people come in and order more and more Lebanese food,” he says. Prices are around $10 for appetizers and $20 and up for entrees.
But Saleeby didn’t immigrate to the U.S. to open restaurants. Originally, he came because he didn’t have a choice. “When your back is to the wall, you don’t have many options,” he recalls.
In the 1960s, as Saleeby finished high school in Beirut, the shortage of space in Lebanon’s colleges and universities became a crisis. To buy time, authorities implemented a new required exam and intentionally designed it to be too difficult to pass. Across Lebanon, he says almost everyone failed that year.
Effectively barred from higher education, Saleeby and his classmates went abroad for college to France, Germany, Australia and the U.S. That’s how he became a UO student in Eugene.
His first job in Eugene was in food service — the UO’s dorm cafeteria, to be exact. A friend told him if he offered to work the breakfast shift, he could get a job easily. “I worked every frickin’ breakfast shift for a whole year,” he says.
The next year Saleeby was hired at the Eugene Hotel, back when it had a five-star restaurant. It was like a miniature United Nations, he recalls. “We had people from everywhere working there, from France, Germany, from Lebanon, from Palestine, from Chile, from Guatemala,” Saleeby says. “It was interesting because we had so many different languages. And they were all students.”
Ib Hamide of Café Soriah was among those who worked there at the time. After graduation, Saleeby went on to manage and own various Eugene-area restaurants, including Terrace Café.
“It wasn’t the easiest decision, to leave,” Saleeby says, remembering his departure from Lebanon almost 50 years ago. “You do whatever you need to, if you want to advance in life, if you want to have a future.”
Willie’s Lebanese and Northwest Cuisine is at 400 International Way in Springfield near the Symantec campus. Lunch hours are 11:30 am to 2 pm Monday through Friday. Dinner hours are 5 pm to 9 pm Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.